Carleton Watkins: Making the West American

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Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) is widely considered the greatest American photographer of the nineteenth century and arguably the most influential artist of his era. He is best known for his pictures of Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American tells the story of Watkins’s influence on California, the West, photography and art. Watkins is best known for pictures of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove made just as the Civil War was beginning in the summer of 1861. They were exhibited in New York for the first time in 1862, as news of the Union’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg was landing in newspapers and while the Matthew Brady Studio’s horrific photographs of Antietam were on view. Watkins’s work tied the West to Northern cultural traditions and played a key role in pledging the once-wavering West to Union. Motivated by Watkins’s pictures, Congress would pass legislation, later signed by Abraham Lincoln, that preserved Yosemite as the prototypical “national park,” the first such act of landscape preservation in the world. Carleton Watkins: Making the West American includes the first revised history of the national park idea since pioneering environmental historian Hans Huth’s landmark 1948 “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea.”

Watkins’s photographs helped shape America’s (and the world’s) idea of the West, and helped make the West a full participant in the nation. His pictures of California, Oregon, and Nevada, as well as modern-day Washington, Utah, and Arizona, not only introduced entire landscapes to America but were important to the development of American business, finance, agriculture, government policy, and science. Watkins’s clients, customers, and friends were a veritable “who’s who” of America’s Gilded Age, and his connections with notable figures such as Collis P. Huntington, John and Jessie Benton Frémont, Eadweard Muybridge, Frederick Billings, John Muir, Albert Bierstadt, and Asa Gray reveal how the Gilded Age helped make today’s America.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American in the media:
Early praise for Carleton Watkins: Making the West American

“The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed much of the history of the West, but Tyler Green pierces that curtain of smoke in this innovative biography, recreating the life of photographer Carleton Watkins. Watkins emerges as a pivotal artist, a key player in the preservation of what is now Yosemite National Park, and a creator […]

T.J. Stiles, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America”

“Green’s achievement here is monumental. This book takes the familiar narrative of the formation of the American West and brings an entirely new perspective to it, beautifully positioning Watkins’s work within the history of California, and indeed the nation.”

Corey Keller, Curator of Photography at SFMOMA

“Green’s writing is lively and witty, peppered with dry humor and twenty-first-century colloquialisms, which make this nineteenth-century story feel vivid and fresh.”

Christine Hult-Lewis, coauthor of “Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs”

“[T]he story of how Watkins came to photograph landscapes in California, Oregon, and Utah is both fascinating and prophetic… It is  a book to be appreciated both textually and visually.”

Barry Silverstein in Foreword